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FAA approval for CNN to fly drones over crowds sets an important milestone for the industry

The unprecedented waiver granted by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to allow CNN to fly a small unmanned aircraft system (UAS) over crowds represents an important milestone for the future use of commercial drones.

The waiver applies to the provision of the federal regulations for commercial operations of small UAS, known as Part 107, that prohibits operators from flying the aircraft over people.

“This is a first. There have only been a few waivers granted for flights over people, and most of them were very narrow in scope. A waiver that allows flights over large crowds is unique in the industry—in addition to obviously being very beneficial for aerial journalism at CNN,” says Mark Blanks, director of the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership.

Blanks explains that before the FAA would grant a waiver like this, they would need to see a compelling safety case, backed up by evidence that demonstrated convincingly that the aircraft they’re using wouldn’t cause serious injuries if it impacted someone.

Virginia Tech’s world-renowned injury biomechanics group and its FAA-approved UAS test site recently teamed up to fill that gap and released the first peer-reviewed academic study to offer quantitative data on injury risk associated with potential drone-human collisions.

The research, published in the Annals of Biomedical Engineering, assessed head and neck injury risk from three small commercially available aircraft in a variety of impact scenarios. The data, which was not involved in the CNN waiver, represent a critical step toward developing UAS safety standards that can minimize the risk of catastrophic or fatal injury from operations over people.

“The ability to fly over people is critical to the viability of many commercial applications for unmanned aircraft. For CNN to be granted a waiver like this means that it’s possible to demonstrate that these operations can be done safely, under certain circumstances. This is a great leap forward for the industry,” says Blanks.

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